This is a perennial question in US politics with many plausible explanations but no convincing ones.. Sean McElwee argues that this is because Republicans have been able to deflect attention from economic issues to social ones.
For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans.
McElwee argues that Democrats may be able to craft a winning policy around environmental issues that mirrors the Republican’s success with race. And the Democratic party’s sudden all-night talkathon on climate change indicates that they are testing the waters to see if it is worth trying to craft one.
Kevin Drum is not convinced that the Democrats can ever craft a winning message around anything economic because their hearts are simply not in it.
Democrats have done virtually nothing for the middle class for three decades now. They’re nearly as reliant on the business community for campaign funding as Republicans. Can we all stop pretending that there’s some deep mystery about why lots of working and middle class voters figure there are no real economic differences between the parties, so they might as well vote on social issues instead?
I tend to agree with Drum. The Democrats run on populist appeals to the working classes then fail to not only deliver but to even make a serious effort to implement those policies. Is it any wonder that the voters are cynical?
But then the question becomes which social issues will be paramount in people’s minds when they vote and where the parties stand on them. Of the standard GRAGGS social issues (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, and sex), which one is likely to emerge as the key one for any given election is hard to predict and could well depend on some accident or contrived event close to the election.